Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Typically, COFP centers on concepts intended more for production than competition — or neither, in the case of last episode’s Mitsubishi HSR-II. But this week’s subject bucks that trend, as it was prepared to race in a rallying class that was cancelled well before it had a chance to prove its worth. This is the story of the Lancia ECV, or Experimental Composite Vehicle.
The ECV was a prototype intended for the World Rally Championship’s Group S class, planned to replace Group B in 1987. It was an evolution of the Delta S4 that Lancia introduced in the final round of the 1985 season. The S4 itself was a four-wheel-drive replacement for the rear-wheel-drive 037 that won the 1983 campaign, but by the middle of the decade the 037 was looking very long in the tooth against Audi and Peugeot’s more sophisticated machinery.
The S4 was a much more formidable opponent. In addition sending power to the ground at all four corners, the S4's 1.8-liter inline-four combined supercharging and turbocharging to officially develop about 480 horsepower, though actual figures reportedly far exceeded that. The car was very fast, winning three rallies in its only full season of 1986 on the way to what could have been a constructor’s title, if the results of the Sanremo Rally in Italy weren’t stricken due to inconsistent scrutineering.
As all this was happening, Lancia was simultaneously readying its entrant for the forthcoming wave of Group S rally cars, and that was the ECV. Unlike the S4, the ECV would have been restricted to 300 HP to comply with Group S rules, as the FIA was determined to slow cars down after a rash of injuries and deaths to competitors and spectators due to Group B’s accelerating pace.
The ECV was very strong and very light due to an extensive use of advanced materials uncommon at the time, even in racing. The chassis took the form of a tub, composed of carbon fiber and honeycomb aluminum with a steel tube structure at the front. As for the body, that incorporated carbon fiber as well, in conjunction with Kevlar. Even the wheels contained carbon fiber. You can understand where Lancia’s head was at with the name, then.
The ECV tipped the scales at 2,050 pounds — still a bit heavier than the S4's 1,962 pounds, though that minimum weight was requirement of Group S regulations. Either way, it was more robust than its tube-frame predecessor.
Lancia was clearly proud of what it built, showing off the ECV at the Bologna Motor Show in late 1986 as well as the Memorial Bettega rally event that December. Sure, the car’s silhouette was generally similar to the S4's, but everything underneath was cutting edge. It was the future of rallying, although it might not have necessarily looked it at the time.
There was just one problem: The ECV stood virtually no chance of ever making it to the WRC, a fact engineers and insiders alike were well aware of by the time the car set off on its press tour.
On May 2, 1986, Lancia driver Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed when their S4 speared off a cliff outside a sharp left-hander on a stage in France’s Tour de Corse rally. Moments before starting on that very stage, Toivonen reportedly said the following in an interview with the media, per Wikipedia:
After four hours of driving, it’s hard to keep up with the speed. So, with a modern car like this, it’s just impossible to race here. It’s physically exhausting and the brain can’t keep up with it anymore.
Everyone already knew Group B was dangerously fast — Toivonen and Cresto’s deaths only reconfirmed that fact in the worst possible way. FISA, the WRC’s governing body, was swift in cancelling Group B effective at the end of the 1986 season. Group S was set to take over in 1987 anyway, but that too was canceled, in favor of the production car-based Group A formula. Much like the Porsche 959, the ECV was left a boxer without a fight.
One of the things I love about the ECV is that Lancia didn’t drop the project immediately upon learning of Group S’s cancellation, like you’d figure any ever-conservative automaker would today. Instead, it kept turning wrenches, kept tweaking things, hoping that perhaps its innovations could find a purpose in the team’s Group A rally program or trickle down to the wider realm of Fiat road cars.
This brings us to what might be the ECV’s most impressive quality: its engine. Group S rules were looking to halve output compared to what Group B allowed, but that didn’t stop Lancia from devising a wildly ambitious 1.8-liter twin-turbo inline-four equipped to fully replace the twin-charged motor in the S4. It was called the Triflux, and rather than poorly attempting to explain it myself, I’m going to throw it over to an excerpt from a very illuminating article Speedhunters published some years back:
The idea behind this motor was to come up with a small capacity and compact engine design that would not only yield a high power output but also allow for a linear power delivery thanks to the use of two turbochargers. The problem, however, was how on earth would you be able to feed and utilize two separate turbos from a four-cylinder layout. [Abarth engineer Claudio] Lombardi came up with the brilliant idea of feeding the four valves of each cylinder in an alternating pattern. So instead of having a conventional “hot” and “cold” side to the head where two pairs of valves are fed the intake charge and the other two dump exhaust gasses, the valves are fed according to a crossed layout or FID (Flusso Incorciato Doppio or double-crossed flow) as Fiat called it and patented it. This meant that the two top-fed valves (imagine an “X” pattern) would allow the compressed charge into the combustion chamber, and the other two would dump exhaust gasses out each side of the head.
At lower engine speeds, only one turbocharger was in play; the second spooled up to add additional power higher in the rev range. Lancia pegged the Triflux inline-four’s output at 470 kW, or about 600 horsepower, and supposedly built five examples.
And despite doing all this hard work and having no forum to really show it off, Lancia refused to stop there. In 1988, while the Group A Delta HF was beginning to establish a dynasty of six-consecutive WRC constructors titles, back at home base Lancia refined the ECV’s design and engineering to create the even more radical ECV 2. That, too, didn’t race!
Having well established at this point that the ECV program never yielded a direct competition counterpart — much less a road car — you could make the argument Lancia’s peerless research and development ultimately delivered results, and that’s all that matters to a racing team. The greater tragedy might be that the Triflux design was never validated, either in motorsport or on the road.
Only one ECV was ever made, and it was dismantled to create the ECV 2. Fortunately, a replica using some ECV parts and a donor car (some say a Delta S4 Stradale, others claim a race-spec car) was built in 2010. Abarth engineers Giuseppe Volta and Claudio Lombardi who had originally worked on the ECV participated in its construction.
Fiat was able to source one of the Triflux prototypes for the project, so the only major component this ECV is missing is the original’s carbon-composite chassis. Miki Biasion, who claimed WRC driver’s titles in Deltas in 1988 and ’89, drove the replica upon its unveiling at the 2010 San Marino Rally Legend event.
Weirdly, for a long time you couldn’t. Even while Lancia was active in motorsports, neither the ECV nor ECV 2 ever appeared in a contemporary racing game.
That all began to change with 2007's Sega Rally Revo — a reimagining of the classic arcade racing franchise, developed by the short-lived, UK-based Sega Racing Studio. Revo was a wonderfully simple arcade racer, the likes of which you don’t see often these days, with a sublime physics model and imaginative track design. It was the game that introduced me to the ECV, much like the original Sega Rally did with the Delta Integrale.
Since then, the ECV has appeared in Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo and Gravel, both made by Italian studio Milestone, as well as indie darling Art Of Rally. In fact, Art Of Rally is the only title to feature both ECV prototypes, albeit unlicensed; in the game, they’re lovably renamed Il Gorilla E1 and E2. They make up a portion of the game’s Group S class, which essentially asks players to imagine how rallying might’ve evolved if the sport was never thrown off course by Group B’s tragedies.